Identity theft increases around tax season, with thieves preying on people's fear of the Internal Revenue Service. There were 223 identity theft related sentencings in 2012, compared to the 80 in 2011. The IRS alone blocked $20 billion in fraudulent refunds from being issued in 2012, up from $14 billion in 2011. And in 2011, there were only 276 investigations into identity theft for the whole fiscal year, but 2013 already has 560 criminal identity theft investigations open.

It's obvious that identity theft in relation to tax season is growing, which means more of us could be affected. Here are some tips on how to identify possible scams and avoid having your identity stolen.

Watch for spam: If you receive an email from the IRS asking for personal information or claiming that you are being audited, don't give them any information. The IRS does not use email or social media to get personal information from taxpayers.

Be careful of suspicious websites: If a website claims to be run by the IRS but does not start with www.irs.gov, then it is probably a fraudulent site.

Use strong passwords for online filing: Even though most online tax services are secure, there is still a possibility of being hacked. Make sure you used a strong password when creating a profile for your online tax service.

Pay attention to fraud notifications from the IRS: If you get a letter from the IRS that says that more than one tax return has been filed in your name, it probably means you have been a victim of identity theft. Contact the IRS immediately if this happens.

Report any suspicious activity: If you have any doubt that a website, email or phone call is really from the IRS, it's always a smart idea to contact the IRS directly and make sure. You can forward any unusual or suspicious emails or websites to phishing@irs.gov.

File the proper paperwork: If you think you've been a victim of identity theft and are worried about your tax records being affected, you should send proof of your identity to the IRS. Make sure you submit a copy of your valid government-issued identification along with a copy of a police report and a completed IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, which should be faxed to the IRS at 1-855-807-5720.

Sign up for identity theft protection: These services will monitor your credit reports and many will also monitor your financial accounts to help detect any unusual activity associated with identity theft. If any suspicious activity occurs, they will contact you immediately. We review the top identity theft protection products here.

Remember, if you ever have questions about any fraudulent activity that might have happened concerning your taxes, be sure to contact the IRS directly.

Identity Theft Protection, Tax Preparation